Steve Langan on waiting for poems

You’re the author of the chapbook Notes on Exile (Backwaters Press, 2005), winner of the 2004 Weldon Kees Award, as well as the books Freezing (New Issues, 2001) and Meet me at the Happy Bar (BlazeVOX Books, 2009) and the letterpress book What it Looks Like, How it Flies (Gibraltar Editions, 2015) with art by Karen Kunc. There’s something beautiful and visceral about the design and layout of your chapbook Notes on Exile. The titles scrawl down the sides in a ghosted, empty font, shapes that compete with the page number and author name where the page meets spine. Your letterpress book is lovely. Kunc’s woodcuts seem to invite touch. Talk about books and chapbooks as objects that contain poems. What does an artfully made collection add to poetry? In your answer talk about books and chapbooks you admire that are made well.

It is necessary for me to bring any and all questions about the aesthetics of stuff and design questions in particular directly to my wife, Liz Ryan, antiques dealer and appraiser and owner of Once Upon a Time Estate Sales here in Omaha. I am up here in my noggin much of the time, sometimes tinkering with a line or a stanza and sometimes just afloat. Liz is fully aware of the items in the world and the placement of them in space and their continuity and flow, their coexistence. She really notices and remembers. She could tell you in detail about every house on our block. Style, color, where a board is missing. I could never duplicate this instinct, this skill. To justify my ignorance in this area, I often say, Only one of us, traveling in Ecuador, really needs to know Spanish. When I showed Liz both of these poetry collections, I received a thumbs up, which meant to me we were good to go. She had specific gushing words of praise for the work of Denise Brady and Karen Kunc for their work on What It Looks Like, How It Flies. Even a numbskull like me can see that is one hell of a beautiful book.

Saying all that is also a way to admit that I don’t really pay attention to book as object. And I don’t have a ready list of books and chapbooks I admire that are made well. I’m inclined to go right to and after the text of the poem. I can be quite obsessive about the making of poems and the editing of them and in the discussion of them.

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In his review in Eclectica, Gilbert Wesley Purdy talks about your use of punctuation. In his review in Make Magazine, Weston Cutter mentions your use of “squishy, deformed words.” Cutter points to your insistence on the now, the immediacy of time in your collection. Purdy categorizes your work as Ellipticism. I started reading the preview of your book Meet Me at the Happy Bar from BlazeVOX [books], while I’ve been waiting for my book order to arrive. I’m charmed by the way you put your poems together. They are refreshing, surprising, and curious and made of lines that draw me through the poem, making me wonder where the comments and images will go next. Talk about your writing process. How do you put your poems together?

With just a couple exceptions, brief projects I’ve tried my hand at during the last few years, I wait for my poems to come to me. There were times when I would doodle with words on a notebook or open up a blank screen on my PC and start writing lines and sentences and phrases. But I don’t do that very often, now. I miss it, sometimes, the openness to whatever might arrive during the flurry and volleys. Almost always, I wait for some language with substance to declare itself. In my noggin. A couple days ago, it was this line: “Allow me please to take a few minutes of your time.” I heard it; I wrote it down before it went away. It felt necessary and urgent…and also hyper-formal and a little bit silly. I especially liked where I heard the placement of the word “please” (in the third position, not in the first or last one). I’m not embarrassed to say the line held some appeal. Why would I want to keep thinking about it, exploring from and around it, if it didn’t? I think this line will be a good and fun way to begin a poem…with a quirky kind of honesty, because isn’t that what all poems are asking for? So there it sits, in my ugly handwriting on a white notepad, waiting for a second line.

I can be a bit of a contrarian. It’s an American tradition. Whitman gives himself permission, without a second thought, to contradict himself. The power in a poem is oftentimes in its capacity to move against itself (and do it again). Yeats set that idea up for us; it’s a very important aesthetic principle, the idea of the argument the poet has with himself. In a poem, I’m almost never trying to prove something. That would be too easy, I think. I’m drawn to the ambiguity and the mystery of it all not just as a matter of taste. It’s where the greatest poems, the ones we are compelled to emulate because they move us so deeply, bring us.


You teach writing in the University of Nebraska MFA program and in the Seven Doctors Project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. ­

I have never addressed the chapbook within a teaching context. But I often have the privilege of working with students at the UNO MFA in Writing program on their theses. A lot of us who do this work ask students in their final semester to give us a copy of every poem they have ever written. The student says, Every poem? Yes, every poem.

A service we can help provide, as the student is learning to become her own editor, is to help gather the best of these poems and place them, with care, in to sections. I suppose many of these sections, looking back, could also double as chapbooks. Thanks for this question; I’m glad you made me think of the ghost chapbooks that exist within these and other manuscripts.

notes on exile

How do you define chapbook? After this interview—and thanks for that—maybe sections of poetry collections can double as chapbooks. And vice versa.

What makes a good chapbook? I defer to Emily Dickinson, her comment about the top of the head being taken off.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I don’t have any nearby…


What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? When I was a college student, I attended a poetry conference, a week long camp, in Norfolk, Nebraska. The poet Red Shuttleworth, author of several chapbooks, was one of the instructors. His poems were about baseball and bronc-riding and taverns. I was hooked.
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What do you look for when you put together a chapbook?
An arc. Movement. Possibility. I assembled the poems in the first chapbook I had published. In my most recent book—there are two fine arts letterpress editions and a trade edition—the editors assembled the poems. I like their ordering.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? One poem at a time.

What’s next for you? Dunno. I have quite a lot of poems that have been published. They are in a folder on my computer titled “Poems for 5th ms.” But when I look at them and consider starting to assemble them, I get a little dizzy. And watch something on Netflix or go to gym.

Current chapbook reading list: Don’t have one.

Number of chapbooks you own: A dozen.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Six and a half.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I’m a stranger in a strange land.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Haven’t yet. Would like to. After learning more.

Your chapbook credo: “I live between the heron and the wren,/Beasts of the field and serpents of the den.”

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: The casino.

Your chapbook wish: World peace.

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Residence: Omaha, Nebraska, just this side of Elmwood Park, and Cliff Island, Maine (road not beach side).

Job: Usually more than one at a time. Executive director of HONOReform, a national patient advocacy group; teaching and residency faculty member, University of Nebraska at Omaha MFA in Writing program; founder and director, Seven Doctors Project. My car’s too old, or I might try Uber. My wife is owner and operator of Once Upon a Time Estate Sales, so I sometimes pitch in.

Chapbook education: Self-taught.

Chapbook Bio: He didn’t want you to have to feel like you have to read too much.


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